So here's my question: In this new era of "Every Student Succeeds" (ESSA), how will educators ensure that students -- including and especially kids of color and kids from low-income families -- learn to high levels?
The expectation that all students would meet standards built into the old federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), helped jumpstart many educators to figure out how to help more kids learn. I know it's been said many times that we haven't shown much progress in the last 15 years on National Assessment of Educational Progress data. But from 2000 to 2015 the percentage of students who scored below basic on fourth-grade math was basically cut in half, from 35 percent to 18. Reading progress was less dramatic, but still the percentage of students scoring below basic went from 41 percent to 31 percent. What that means is that thousands of children are reading and doing math at least at basic levels who might not have been if their teachers and principals hadn't figured out new ways to help them.
ESSA retains the expectation that schools should help all groups of students, but l worry that some educators might think the flexibility about methods gives them permission to settle back into old patterns of assuming that it's okay if some kids will "get it" and some kids won't. If that happens, then in another decade we can expect to still be talking about the achievement gaps that are undermining our nation.
Here's how it works: When educators assume that only some of their students will meet or exceed standards, they spend inordinate amounts of time and organizational energy figuring out ahead of time which ones are most likely going to get it. They sift and sort, building different classes and courses and curricula for the different types of kids. This leads to what can only be considered a self-fulfilling prophecy in which some students receive the most rigorous instruction and the rest bumble along. Occasionally they might get a terrific teacher who holds them to higher standards (the storyline for the "hero" teacher stories we've seen for the last 60 years, from Blackboard Jungle to Freedom Writers). But too often they don't.
That is the basic system that prompted No Child Left Behind's stated expectation that schools should help every child meet or exceed grade-level standards.
The question remains whether we as a nation will return to the idea that it is acceptable for schools to replicate the racial and class divisions that are anathema to a true democracy.
So what should educators be doing? Certainly educators need to believe their students can achieve at high levels, but belief is not enough. Here's my list of what can help educators deliver on that belief:
1. They should incorporate into their practice what we know from research.
I know, I know, the worst charlatans in education continually invoke "research" to push some ridiculous initiative or another. But that doesn't mean there isn't actually some good research that can help educators ensure that all their students learn. A few bodies of research on which there is significant agreement include:
- cognitive science research;
- research on school practices that best help kids learn; and
- research on key organizational leverage points for improvement.
That doesn't exhaust the list, but educators who begin with a solid grounding in those areas will have a few ideas about where to start with their classrooms, schools, and districts.
2. They should examine the experience of more successful classrooms, schools, and districts to see what might be useful to try.
This seems obvious and yet too often educators consider their own schools to be so individual that they have little to learn from other schools. It is true that every school has its own context and particularities - but kids are kids, teachers are teachers, and systems are systems. A high school with low graduation rates that never manages to provide all its students with a working schedule on the first day of school has a lot to learn from high schools that run like clockwork and have high graduation rates; a middle school where suspensions are through the roof can learn from middle schools with high attendance and few discipline problems; an elementary school where few students meet math standards can learn a lot from another that helps all its students meet or exceed math standards.
Continual inquiry is applicable for teachers, principals, and superintendents - everyone can find someone who is more successful in some way and learn from them.
3. They should examine the experience of their own classrooms, schools, and districts to see what is successful and what is not.
Those things that are successful should be perfected; those things that are not should be either jettisoned or changed to align with the best research or the practices of more successful schools. This is about doing "more of what works and less of what doesn't."
An example of what I mean would include an elementary school that has adopted a particular way of teaching reading that works well for many, but not most, of its students.
It is far too easy to point to the faults of the kids - they arrived with small vocabularies, their parents don't help with homework, the kids act out when they are bored. It is a short hop from there to designating them as the kids who won't "get it."
But the failure of most of their students to learn to read should be the opening for the educators in that school to go back to the research on reading to make sure that their instruction incorporates all the necessary elements with the fidelity and intensity required; to study the practices of more successful schools to see if they have better training, better curriculum, or better schedules; and to look inward to see if some teachers are more successful and examine what other teachers can learn from them. Failure, in other words, should prompt study and reflection on the part of educators. It should not be an opportunity to say that some kids just aren't going to learn to read.
Kids go to school to learn, and it is the responsibility of the professionals employed to teach them to figure out how to help them.
That is the basic contract that should never change no matter what the federal law is.